51 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
2 Wash me completely clean of my guilt; purify me from my sin!
3 Because I know my wrongdoings, my sin is always right in front of me.
4 I’ve sinned against you—you alone. I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
5 Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin, from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.[a]
7 Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and celebration again; let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
9 Hide your face from my sins; wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.
14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices. If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.
18 Do good things for Zion by your favor. Rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.
19 Then you will again want sacrifices of righteousness—
entirely burned offerings and complete offerings.
Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar (Psalm 51:1-19, CEB)
If you were to pick up most of our Bibles and look at the words at the beginning of Psalm 51 you would see a few words, a sub-heading, if you will, before the first verse. These sub-headings are not an uncommon thing in the Psalms. Almost all the Psalms have these sub-headings. Remember, the Psalms were the Israelite hymnal. In most cases, they served to give instruction to the choir director or to assign a lyricist to the hymn. Most scholars and commentators generally agree that these words are later additions to the text that probably have little to do with the particular psalm’s original meaning. Psalm 51 is no different. There we read, “To the choirmaster (or the leader depending on the translation you read) A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone into Bathsheba.” Here we have more than instruction or credit to the lyricist. These words serve to set the time and tone of this Psalm for the Israelites.
During the course of my week, it is usually a part of my devotional time to read a sermon. Since I don’t generally get to listen to someone else preach this is something that has become important to me over the years of my ministry. As I know it is with you, some of these sermons I really enjoy. Others, well, not so much. We’ll just say, for me, they didn’t quite make the mark for a variety of reasons.
Sometime back I read a sermon that has stuck with me for a while. It was a sermon based on tonight’s text. It was fine at the beginning but it wasn’t long before I read a paragraph that jumped off the page at me. As I was reading it quickly became evident that the writer took the words at the beginning of the Psalm quite literally. That was OK, after all, they could be accurate, I personally tend to lean that way too. The sermon then went on to tell how this put David’s sin out in front of all the people. For a period of time he may have been able to keep the sin covered but with Nathan’s confrontation and then this Psalm, David’s sin was no longer a secret. Everyone knew.
Again, there is nothing wrong with any of that. Then I read this paragraph: “Oh, God, I thank you that I am not in any way like David. I have never done anything like that. I have never planned and executed a sin. I have always admitted when I did sin and made everything right.”
I would hope that his author was trying to say he had not committed adultery or murder but what he actually implies is, he is not a sinner.
As I read his words my mind went wandering to the story that Jesus told of two men praying in the temple. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing off by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The preacher who wrote that sermon used words that sounded dangerously close to the words of the Pharisees.
“Oh, God I thank you that I am not in any way like David.” I find those to be frightening words for any of us to speak No, we may not have committed David’s exact sins, but does that mean we are no much like David already? The truth is, we really are like David, and Adam, and Peter, and Judas, and Ahab and Jezebel as well as every human being who has walked, who is currently walking, or who will walk in the future. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Have you ever wondered how Lent got started? We won’t find it in the pages of Scripture. There is no verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt observe and celebrate Lent.”
Around 230 A.D., a group of Christians started fasting for the 40 hours leading up to Easter in order to prepare their hearts for Easter. It wasn’t long before the idea caught on and spread like wildfire. Several years later the fasting period was increased to seven days and they called it Holy Week. By 325 A.D., the Church officially made the season of lent 40 days to parallel and allude to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and being tested in the wilderness. That is the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the tradition behind our observance of the Lenten tradition.
It seems to me, that because we are all more like David than we care to admit, Psalm 51 is a particularly appropriate psalm with which to begin Lent. In these words, we find the confessions of one who feels the deepest guilt and remorse. It is the kind of confession we need to make as we work and pray in order to prepare our hearts for Easter. These words represent a true heart to heart conversation that we all need to have with the Father.
First of all, the psalmist recognizes the sins of his heart and of his life. There are sins there that perhaps no one knows about, but the psalmist knows. More importantly than that, the psalmist also knows that beyond question, God knows his sins as well, and now he wants to make the change in his life.
At the depths of our hearts, God knows us, yes, all about us. Scripture God is said to have the hairs of our heads numbered. Some of us have lower numbers than others. If God can know how many hairs are on our heads God can search within the deepest reaches of our hearts to see the sins we have committed and have admitted to no one else.
When I think about this I am reminded of that old Christmas song, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re away. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” But this isn’t Santa Clause we are talking about. God knows everything about us and if God knows all of that, perhaps it is long since time for us to realize God knows the sins of our hearts.
BEGIN WATER PROJECT *
This Lenten season we need to learn from the words of the psalmist. We need to confess our sins to God.
All too often we think like the Pharisee or the preacher I mentioned. We think we don’t have sin, well at least not any bad sins. But sin has a way of filling our lives. I can move through everywhere. And, if we don’t remain faithful, if we don’t strive to find ways to hold our sin in check by regular confession and prayer, sin can completely take over and control our lives.
But sin doesn’t have the last word. We are sinners. But, no matter what, we need to remember that there is more grace in God than there is sin in us. What is left of us is to confess.
Over the last several years I have given thought to this idea of confession. I think we Protestants lost something important that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters still maintain, confession. Confession is considered a sacrament in the Catholic Church. For we Protestants, it is an afterthought if we remember it at all. There is something about us hearing our voice speaking with our ears hearing that is important to the confession and redemption process. To say it out loud makes a difference. We don’t do that for God, God already knows. We do it for us.
Additionally, confession to do with another person. No, I am not ready to build a confession booth and to sin and listen to confessions all day. That isn’t my point. My point is, find a prayer partner, someone who can listen, who can check on you, who can help hold you accountable so the sin is not only forgiven by God, but we are better able to keep it out of our lives.
Confession, it’s good for the soul. Let us remember, as we confess, we do so knowing that God is faithful and just. We need to know that if we confess our sins, God will forgive our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. It has been said that when we confess our sins that God takes the sin away and buries it in the deepest part of the ocean and then puts up a sign that says, “No Fishing.”
The psalmist prays asking God to create in him a wise and clean heart. It should be our greatest desire to live in the will of God. Paul asks the question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may about?” Then he answers his own question saying, “By no means!” Making us wise in our secret heart is to live and do the will of God from the deepest parts of our souls.
The psalmist’s request for a clean heart goes hand in hand with his request that God blots out his transgressions and wash him thoroughly from iniquity. If we are washed, if our transgressions are blotted out, they no longer exist. We still remember them in our minds, not to continue to make us feel guilty over sins that God has long since forgiven. We are free to live with a clean heart. We are free to live in the manner in which God calls us to live.
Only God can forgive. As we begin this Lenten season, our lesson reminds us of the importance of coming to God with a contrite heart. We are humble and contrite because of what God and God alone can do for us, forgive the sins of our inmost hearts. Let us never be ones to say, “I thank God that I am not like David,” or Harry or Amy or anything else. If we are truthful with ourselves, we recognize that we are far more like them than we care to admit.
As we being the Lenten season, it is my prayer that we will make the psalmist’s prayer our own. No, we may not have committed David’s sins, but we have sinned. We are guilty. And, it is only through the love, forgiveness, and grace of God that we can find forgiveness.
I want to close by reading the psalmist’s prayer one more time. This time, however, I want to read it from the contemporary English version, The Message. I think it can speak to us.
51 1-3 Generous in love—God, give grace!
Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.
Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry.
I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.
4-6 You’re the One I’ve violated, and you’ve seen
it all, seen the full extent of my evil.
You have all the facts before you; whatever you decide about me is fair.
I’ve been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
What you’re after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
7-15 Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes, give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash, or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile, put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God; I’ll let loose with your praise.
16-17 Going through the motions doesn’t please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don’t for a moment escape God’s notice.
18-19 Make Zion the place you delight in, repair Jerusalem’s broken-down walls.
Then you’ll get real worship from us, acts of worship small and large,
Including all the bulls they can heave onto your altar!
May our Lenten prayer be such a heartfelt cry for repentance, as we get heart to heart with God.
Copyright 2018, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
* The “Water Project” mentioned above was a visual illustration. I saw this done many years ago and have heard and read about it many times over. I got a large cylindrical container (in my case a flower vase) and put about 25 ounces of water in the bottom. As I talked about sin and the danger of sin in our lives, I dropped about 10 drops of yellow food coloring in. After the food coloring was spread through all the water, I began talking about grace and poured in about five tablespoons of regular household bleach. The water returns to it’s normal, clear state. A couple of warnings put plastic over carpeted floors. The food coloring may or may not matter depending on the carpet color. The bleach will make a difference regardless of the carpet color. Second, I used yellow food coloring as my research told me it was bleached out easiest. Third, experiment BEFORE you try to use this. I did the experiment. I had wanted to use red because it would be easier seen. When I tried it with red it did not return to clear in close to the time frame I needed it to happen. Blue would have been worse so I just used yellow.